The Philip José Farmer novel A Feast Unknown debuted in 1969, published by Essex House. I’ve told the story before of how I encountered it four years later, in 1973 at age fifteen. At that time I was living in the beach town of Ocean City, Maryland. Strictly speaking, my family was actually homeless, squatting in closed-down hotels in the winter, and shifting a little south to the wild island of Assateague to live in tents in more temperate months. I was no longer going to public school, and wanted, more than anything, to become a writer. I read incessantly…a mixture of classic literature and pulp fiction. I haunted any establishment in Ocean City that had books in it.
One of those places was a head shop called The Rainbow Tree. Headshops were holdovers from the 60’s…places to buy smoking paraphernalia, incense, and best of all, badass literature. I was too young to actually be allowed in there, but at that age I could raise a thin mustache that made me look older, and so I slipped inside their beaded curtain to what felt thrillingly like a forbidden world.
Of course I went straight for their “book section”, a motley collection of underground comics, revolutionary pamphlets, sex magazines, and outlaw lit. I had been an avid fan of the Bantam paperback Doc Savage books, but needless to say I was not looking to expand that collection at The Rainbow Tree. Nevertheless, I did a double take to see the cover of the Essex House edition of A Feast Unknown, with its cover clearly depicting a nude Doc Savage (who I would quickly learn had been renamed Doc Caliban) wrestling an equally unclothed Tarzan (named Lord Grandrith).
I was intrigued, in fact fascinated. But as I opened the book and scanned randomly through the pages, I was, quite frankly, shocked. Used to the sanitized world of the Doc paperbacks, I was unprepared for what was obviously a hammering narrative of nonstop sex and violence.
I almost put it back and walked away. Not because I didn’t want to read it…but because I felt somehow naked myself. Pulp heroes were innocent…the adventures of their protagonists violent, yes, but never mixed with intense sexuality. To see those idealistic heroes in the context of brutal eroticism was jarring, unsettling. My own interest in sex (adolescent male, hormones raging) was intense, but I was shy around girls, and the social separation and isolation caused by homelessness only increased that shyness. Forbidden books and magazines were where I turned to explore, gingerly, that exciting, mysterious, superheated world. But it was a quest filled with stolen glances and secret thoughts. To be seen wanting that book, would surely be like wearing a scarlet letter on my forehead.
But I couldn’t walk away. Used paperbacks were cheap at The Rainbow Tree — even though I counted every penny in those days, I could afford it easily. So I nerved myself up and brought it up to the counter, my heart pounding, fully expecting the checkout guy to look at the nude Doc and Tarzan on the cover, raise his eyes to look at fifteen-year-old me attempting to appear calm and cool and at least eighteen, and shake his head with an admonition to go home and read the Sunday funnies, kid.
However, he didn’t bat an eye. I paid, fled back out through the beaded curtain, got on my bike, and rode to the nearby beach. With my back propped against a sand dune, I started reading.
I was conceived and born in 1888. Jack the Ripper was my father…
to be continued…